Human history has been punctuated by war and conflict, and behind every great empire or civilisation, there is usually a great general or leader who made it happen. We have tried to come up with a list of the top ten greatest generals; the following are perhaps some (but not all) of the best known, but more importantly we have selected those whose victories set into motion events which still have an impact today.
1) Alexander III of Macedon (356 BC — 323 BC)
Better known as Alexander the Great, he came from a formerly obscure Greek kingdom to conquer the super power of his day: the Persian Empire. Alexander’s genius lay in his ability to defeat superior numbers with brilliant military strategies and psychological warfare, minimizing his casualties. At the Battle of Gaugamela, for example, he ordered men with overly-long spears to the front, frightening the Persians who had shorter ones. He fought 17 major wars, winning them all. His death, however, was not on the battle field, but due to illness.
2) Ashoka Maurya (304 BC — 232 BC)
Before the Moghuls and the British, most of present-day India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan were united under the Maurya dynasty. Its founder was Ashoka Maurya, also known as Ashoka the Great.
Ashoka conquered the state of Kalinga (now the Indian province of Odisha), then a democratic republican state. Within his lifetime, he conquered most of the Indian subcontinent. He later sickened of war, however, and converted to a then obscure and new religion: Buddhism. In an attempt to make up for his atrocities, he sent missionaries throughout India and Eurasia, making it the major religion it is today.
3) Julius Caesar (100 BC — 44 BC)
Gaius Julius Caesar rose to prominence by defeating the Gauls. With their conquest, he went on toward the Rhine and launched the invasion of Britain. The Roman Senate, fearful of his growing power, ordered him to step down and return to Rome. His response was to cross the Rubicon, take over the republican government, and set himself up as its emperor. He personally recorded his own campaigns which continue to serve as valuable sources for military strategists even today.
4) Genghis Khan (1162 — 1227)
His actual name was Borjigin Temujin. He united the diverse and frequently warring Mongol tribes into a single force that shook Europe, India, China, Northern Africa, and the Middle East. At its peak, the Mongol Empire ruled about 22% of the earth’s land mass.
Khan’s strength lay in his mounted archers who could shoot accurately even at full gallop. Their flexible bows could also pierce through armor, making them unbeatable. He personally saw the conquest of Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan.
5) Salahuddin Ayubi (1137 or 1138 -1193)
Better known to the west as Saladin, he was instrumental in uniting the disparate Arab kingdoms during the Third Crusade. Though technologically more advanced, the Middle East was unable to repel the Europeans because the Islamic kingdoms were at war with each other.
Saladin united the Muslims under his banner and recaptured Jerusalem. Despite being their enemy, he was so honorable that the Europeans admired him. After the Battle of Arsuf, Richard the Lionhearted offered Saladin his sister, Joan of England, as a peace offering.
Saladin also founded the Egyptian Ayyubid dynasty, which included Arabia, North Africa, Nubia, Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Transjordan.
6) Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 — 1821)
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, no one else came as close to uniting Western Europe as Napoleon did. Like Alexander the Great, he had a talent for defeating superior numbers, even a series of seven European alliances. Even today, his strategies are required study by military academies. He even changed the nature of traditional European warfare. In a time when capturing a capital city meant victory, Napoleon went after strategic territories, instead. Unfortunately, he forgot his own wisdom when he took Moscow.
7) Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson (1824 — 1863)
Jackson fought for the Confederacy and remains an important icon in the American south. Up until his death, the Union’s victory remained uncertain, as Jackson had yet to lose a battle. His luck changed in 1862 when bad intelligence led him to underestimate the number of troops he had to face: 8,500 men to his 3,800. He survived his only defeat, going on to five more victories before getting accidentally shot by one of his own men the following year. After that, Confederate morale and victories declined.
8) Erwin Rommel (1891 — 1944)
Also known as the Desert Fox, Rommel was instrumental in bogging down the Allied offensive in North Africa — its principle source of oil and Britain’s access to Southeast Asia. This was no mean feat, as he was up against two other legends: the British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and the American General George Smith Patton.
Rommel first rose to prominence after leading his troops through Belgium and France, becoming general of the 5th light division. He was then sent to North Africa to hold it till Hitler conquered either Britain or Russia. He only failed because of lack of equipment and was later executed in secret.
9) Bernard Law Montgomery (1887 — 1973)
His military career began in World War I as a junior officer with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment where he became a general staff officer, seeing action at the Battle of Arras and the Battle of Passchendaele. By 1917, he became chief of staff of the 47th Division.
In World War II, he led the British Eighth Army in the Western Desert and was instrumental in turning the Battle of El Alamein against Rommel. This freed him to invade Sicily and Italy, and later oversee the Battle of Normandy.
10) George S. Patton (1885 — 1945)
Patton became famous in North Africa when he outmaneuvered German forces at El Guettar and defeated Rommel’s forces. He then joined Montgomery for the invasion of Sicily and Italy, after which he led the US Third Army. He was the first to use the Nazi tactic of blitzkrieg against them, using it in France and Russia. He so traumatized the Germans that they would say Patton’s army, not the Third, was coming.